Richard Gotterher and the Art of the Instant Record
by Keith Bearden
Almost everyone can name a watershed musical moment in their life. I’ve heard stories from friends of first becoming sexually aroused listening to Aerosmith’s "Walk This Way," or deciding to drop out of school after hearing the first Stooges record. The moment that redefined my life and musical tastes was catching the first set of "New Wave" records to come out of New York City in 1977. They had the exuberance, beat, and sing-along melodies of stuff I had loved on the oldies station, but with an anger, world-weariness and sick humor totally appropriate in the styleless, decadent and lazy years following the ’60s "revolution." It made me fully acknowledge what I had always suspected: I was not "normal," I was not "mellow" and I was not "cool." I did not fit in and now I had music for and by other people who didn’t fit in either. It was at this point that music became a therapist, a friend, and a community by proxy in the remaining decade until I was able to bust out of my stunted suburban existence.
As I studied and memorized the jackets of my favorite vinyl companions over the next few years, I noticed a familiar name popping up in the production credits: Richard Gotterher. Soon, anything with his name on the back became an automatic purchase, grooves unheard. Like Phil Spector, anything with Gotterher’s touch mandated at least one listen.
Like many involved with the new wave movement, Gotterher’s roots lie in studio pop bands of the ’60s. He, along with producing/writing partners Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, created the ruse that was the Strangeloves, posing as three independently wealthy Australian sheep farmers who moonlighted as musicians. They hoodwinked enough American teens with their phony story, "Aboriginal" drums and cheap Beatle wigs in 1965 to send "I Want Candy" to number 11 on the national charts. If only for that one song, the Strangeloves are worthy of discussion. "I Want Candy" is a revelation; a Bo Diddley jungle beat, jazzy guitar line, and massed, aharmonious male vocals sounding like a fraternity bash at its drunken pinnacle—all bathed in enough reverb to make it sound like the first live simulcast from the moon.
Bow Wow Wow’s 1983 version may be more familiar, but the Strangeloves’ original is the one that gets under your skin. Two more Top 40 hits followed —"Cara-Lin," later covered by the Fleshtones, and "Night Time," redone by Iggy Pop, the Nomads and even Joe Jackson (as the theme to a Miller beer commercial!). Like the Shadows of Knight, the Strangeloves pre-dated the term “Bubblegum Rock,” and their heavier sound and seemingly more authentic garage band persona have saved them from being lumped in (and berated) with other studio pop bands of the era. Of course, the history of rock ‘n’ roll is a history of "fake" studio bands, and many hit songs of numerous "real" groups (Byrds, Beach Boys,) were played partially by for-hire session men (but that is for a whole ‘nother book).
Many persons involved in the 1960s NYC studio pop hit factory later worked with the explosion of ’70s pop/rock talent that fell under the tag of "New Wave." Buddah Records publicist Marty Thau managed or produced the New York Dolls, the Real Kids, Suicide and the Fleshtones, to name a few. Tommy James/ Crazy Elephant/ 1910 Fruitgum Company songwriter and musician Ritchie Cordell channeled Joan Jett’s talents into the stuff of ’80s Top 40 success. But it was Gotterher’s "Instant Records"—his ’70s production company: he recorded LPs in an average of four weeks as opposed to the months or even years common during the era—that clarified the link between new wave and its ’50s/’60s influences like no other. He helped Blondie sound less like a Soho loft garage band and more like the mutant Girl Group they wanted to be. His work with Robert Gordon and Link Wray proved to post-Woodstock hipsters that “oldies” could be as valid as the Ramones. Marshall Crenshaw’s classic debut LP, Pearl Harbor’s woefully underrated solo work, The Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat—all superb pop music that will forever define an era, a genre and the artists that made them. All the product of Gotterher’s pop sensibilities.
Still producing records occasionally, Richard Gotterher is currently the CEO of The Orchard (www.theorchard.com) a web-based independent music distributor. We met over tea at a noisy cafe near his offices in New York City’s Chinatown.
Keith Bearden: Tell me about your start in the music biz.
Richard Gotterher: I started when I was in high school in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. I was a classically trained piano player, and then I discovered the blues. Listening to Alan Freed, I learned about rhythm and blues and black music. So I started writing songs, at first copying Jerry Lee Lewis. At the time it was Elvis and Jerry Lee, and being a piano player, I naturally gravitated to Jerry Lee. So I wrote a song, when I was 16-years-old, called ‘I’m On Fire,’ which he eventually recorded in the ’60s just before his transition to country music. One of his last real rock recordings.
I was playing with my own band, and I got some songs published. One day I ran into two guys outside the office of one of the music publishing houses, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein. We hit it off and started writing songs together. Then we started making demos, which were primitive one-track recordings. And then we said to ourselves, “If we can write and produce demos, we can write and produce records.”
We had basically a string of hits from 1963 to 1966. First, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels, which went number one. We worked on the girl groups for years, and wrote for Freddy Cannon, Dion, Bobby Vee. Lots of people. I have a drawer full of almost one hundred 45s that we either wrote or produced, or both.
After ’66, we split up, and then I formed Sire Records with Seymour Stein. We licensed a lot of European music, had some hits. We had Climax Blues Band, Renaissance, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. I left Sire in the mid-’70s, when the punk thing started happening, when I discovered Blondie, Richard Hell, Robert Gordon, and made a lot of records with those people.
How did the Strangeloves happen?
We had been producing the Angels, and there was a point where they went on strike. And we had this track for them, this remake of an old Patti Page or Jo Stafford song called “A Little Love (That’s All I Want From You).” It was done in what was ska for the time; they called it bluebeat. We changed it and called it “Love Love.” The girl group thing was sort of fading, and the Beatles were coming in a big way, and the whole British Invasion, so we decided to sing on the track and call ourselves the Strangeloves. In the middle, Bob recited the lyrics, pretending to be British. We sold the record to Swan, put on these Beatle wigs and posed with these African drums in a photo, and put out this goofy press release that we were Australian. With all the British groups around, we figured Australia would be novel.
We get a call from a DJ in Virginia Beach, VA, and he says, “This record is getting a great response down here, if you come down and perform, we can drive it up to number one.” We said, “Okay.” We get there, and we went to the airport, got in a small plane that drove down the runway, faking that we had just flew in from Australia. There was a huge sign saying, “Virginia Beach welcomes Australia’s Strangeloves.” There were all these screaming kids, holding teddy bears, and throwing jelly beans, cause that’s what they did back then. When we went to perform, we only had this one song, and we knew we couldn’t just do that. So we did “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley. And the response was unbelievable!!
So we come back to New York and record it at Atlantic Studios. Ahmet says he really likes it, but that we should take it to his new label Bang. We took it to Bert Berns [co-writer of “Twist and Shout,” among many other hits], and he says, “This is great, but Bo Diddley was Bo Diddley, why don’t we re-work it using the same beat?” And the four of us wrote, “I Want Candy.”
There was this wonderful guitar player at the time named Everett Barksdale, who came up with the riff and he was playing off the melody to “Anna,” the hit by Silvano Merano. We had become pretty knowledgeable about producing at this point. We kept ping-ponging in the studio —we recorded the drums twice, along with me banging on African drums, and Jerry, Bob and myself were overdubbed singing together four times. That’s why this record has this overwhelming sound to it. After we mixed it and mastered it, we added more EQ and reverb, so it has a very processed feel, but at the same time has a real raw vibe to it. This process occurred over a period of weeks.
We used a lot of tricks, but I was always careful to keep things spontaneous. The wonderful thing about recording with them was there were moments that you captured, and you tried to go back and get it again and you couldn’t. When we did “Hang On Sloopy” [Gotterher produced the McCoy’s massive hit], we tried it again —we did the same beat and sound again and it never came together. It could’ve been something as obtuse as the temperature of the studio or the weight on the drums. With the digital technology of today there is none of that variable.
Why did the Strangeloves only have one album?
Albums were not the thing back then. Until the Beatles came along, nobody really bought albums, they bought singles. Our one LP had three hits on it, but it didn’t make a difference. Moving on to the ’70s, if you had a hit song you had to have an album because people bought albums. The market had changed. That’s one of the reasons radio was more open back in the ’60s to play new and indie records. People didn’t play album tracks. They wanted hit 45s. They were hungry for ’em, and the damn things only lasted two minutes! That’s a lot of demand for product!
When you toured, did people catch on that you were three guys from Brooklyn and the Bronx?
No, never. We had our fake Australian accents, and that was enough.
Do you have a philosophy as a producer?
I learned from listening to records by Leiber-Stoller and Phil Spector. The song has to always be your center, your focal point. If you create an environment that enhances the song, that’s the job of the producer. You have to listen to the song first. I came from being a songwriter. What I like to think I bring to a recording is a clarity of thought.
A lot of bands make really stinky records when they stop working with you. Holly & the Italians made an amazing debut with you, and their second LP is unlistenable. Nobody likes the Go-Go’s’ third record. Marshall Crenshaw’s career never recovered from Steve Lillywhite doing Field Day. How much involvement do you have with young, untried bands? What changes did you make when you worked with Blondie for example?
They didn’t need a lot of changes, really, just structural channeling. What I like to try to do with a band is work with their deficits, as well as their assets. To me, it didn’t matter if you didn’t play that well —I found a way of getting it out of you. A lot of producers would say, “You have to do this perfectly —if you can’t do it, I’ll find someone else who can.” I always figured, “Hey, Clem Burke isn’t the greatest drummer in the world, but something he’s doing is unique, and fits in with the uniqueness of the band. And it’s my job to bring that to listeners.” There were things about Blondie that were amazing from the beginning —their sense of humor, their attitude. I wasn’t as concerned with their ability to execute everything. What I wanted to do was capture the feeling and enthusiasm of what they were about, and just focus it in a way that was palatable to mass audiences. Because they were considered weird back then. There was nothing remotely like it on radio. I wanted to bring out the qualities they had. Professionalism is not as important to me as it was to radio programmers of the time, perhaps.
Those first two records were not very popular in the US, but they were incredibly popular overseas. Then of course Mike Chapman worked with them and focused more on the discipline part of producing them, and they exploded with “Heart of Glass.”
Blondie sounded like Blondie when they were with you. Chapman’s hand was a lot heavier than yours was. That’s the difference between you and producers like Phil Spector and Giorgio Moroder —you don’t mold bands in your image. The records you produce don’t all sound alike. They have a pop aesthetic, but–
There is a thread that goes through it. I’m more interested in the emotion of the song. The sound should be appropriate for emotion of the song.
What were your challenges working with the Go-Go’s? They were part of the L.A. punk scene and sounded pretty ragged. How much teaching did you have to do?
A lot. The Go-Go’s at their first rehearsal just said, “Just tell us what you want us to do. We want to be successful.” The funny part about that record was when it came out, [IRS Records president] Miles Copeland called me up, and he was just livid! “You ruined my group! I gave you this great punk band and listen to this bubblegum shit!” He was talking about “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which I thought was just amazing. The band themselves weren’t there for the mix, and when they heard it, they didn’t talk to me for a good six months. They cried. They thought it didn’t sound like them. It wasn’t grungy and disorganized. To me, it captured their identity perfectly. Then they came to love it and we did a second album.
Your sixties work was mostly session musicians. Did you have any studio groups during the new wave era?
No. We brought in a different drummer for Holly & the Italians, and we occasionally had someone do sax, or Paul Schaffer doing keyboards.
Joey Levine from the Ohio Express was asked to produce some new wave records, but found the whole scene “too freaky.” Did you have any hesitations about it?
No. I went down to CBGBs early on. Marty Thau was really into the change that was going on, and he took me. I signed Robert Gordon, Richard Hell, Blondie, all to production contracts and got them with record labels. No one else would have them at the time.
One of the great things about new wave was that it was a real New York scene.
Yes! New York was the only thing going. New York started it and England and the rest of the U.S. followed. Unless you count rap, it was the last big New York thing. We started that, too.
Did you see a lot of parallels between your sixties music and the new wave bands you were producing?
Most definitely. The people who were really doing it in the early days of punk, completely bypassed the early ’70s. They were really into ’50s rockabilly, girl groups and of course the British invasion. To them, rock ‘n’ roll stopped in 1969 and began again in 1976.
There is an argument that bands who aren’t really bands—that are studio musicians, or created by producers, managers or records companies—are inherently invalid because they are “manufactured.” How do you feel about that?
Well, that’s certainly invalid if you’re talking about pop music. That idea eliminates a huge portion of what’s happening, yesterday and today. The purpose of making a record is so people will enjoy it, it gives them pleasure and a unique experience. I mean that’s it. It doesn’t matter for me. I don’t listen to today’s studio groups like the Backstreet Boys and the like. It just seems contrived. It has a factory-produced feel. I consider the stuff we did in the sixties to be much freeer and more organic.